Results tagged ‘ Moneyball ’
Long-time baseball man Grady Fuson served as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden. He left the A’s at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A’s a little over four years ago to serve as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with the A’s general manager – though that’s not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here), and he and Beane are both back on the same team and rowing in the same direction.
During spring training, Fuson can most frequently be found patrolling the A’s minor league fields at Papago Park, keeping a close eye on the team’s most prized prospects. And it was there that we took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators to get the lowdown on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects…
AF: So what are your impressions of Addison Russell after his first full year of pro ball now that he’s been out here in big league camp?
GF: I think the impression he’s made is the same. He hasn’t missed a beat. He’s played well on both sides of the ball. He’s made some very good plays at short. He’s gotten a lot of playing time. The first ten games or so until he had the hamstring strain, he almost played the last half of every game. So I think he’s had 25 at-bats over there and held his own in every category.
AF: Is there anything that he needs to focus on this season just to get him a little bit closer to being major-league ready?
GF: Well, you know, when he did come to camp, it looked like he toyed with his stance and his hand-set a little bit. So that was a little confusing at the beginning. But he figured a few things out with his hands and changed that. And you know, this kid looks like he’s really close – no matter where he goes, he looks like he’s close.
AF: So it’s just a matter of letting nature take its course at this point.
GF: Yep, nature will take its course.
AF: What about Daniel Robertson? Where’s he at in his development at this stage of the game?
GF: Robbie’s had a nice camp. He was here early for the mini-camp. He’s actually been over there [in the big league camp] quite a bit. He’s had some opportunities. He’s another guy who’s held his own. I think he’s impressed them with his at-bats. And he’s made some good plays on some tough hops over there. He’s got a very polished look for a 20-year-old.
AF: In the future, with Addison Russell moving along as quickly as he has and looking like the A’s shortstop of the near future, looking at Robertson down the line, are there other positions you could see him being a good fit at?
GF: Yeah, I don’t think any of us think there’s going to ever be an issue if he has to go over to second or if he has to go to third. But there’s not a guy you would talk to in this camp who doesn’t look at him as a shortstop, so we’ll just keep that going.
AF: Another guy who’s seen a little time in the big league camp this spring is last year’s top draft pick, Billy McKinney.
GF: Yep, Billy’s been over there a little bit. He actually had some quality at-bats. I was there for his first one. He battled a couple tough ones off and then they threw him an ultra-big-league slider and I think it froze him up a little bit. But yesterday, I think he went 0-2 in that count and battled back a little bit and hit a nice line drive to right. He’s done well…Those kids who get to go across the street [to big league camp], there’s nothing like it for them. I was talking to Renato Nunez this morning, and he came back from there, and he’s on fire. He was talking to all the guys over there, and it’s a thrill and a great experience for those kids to go over there for a day or two.
AF: Since you just mentioned him, I’m guessing Renato Nunez is probably going to get the chance to hit a lot of home runs at Stockton in the California League this year. What’s the outlook on him, especially defensively at third base?
GF: We’re still grinding away defensively. It comes and goes. Sometimes his feet get in the way a little bit. But a couple of balls the other day, he reacted really well on. And then a couple of balls he kind of kicked around. It’s a work in progress. You know, I think his body is still evolving. He was such a young guy when we signed him…now he’s bulked up a little bit and he’s a little stronger, so he’s still going into those years where his body’s still growing and he’s starting to learn what’s going to feel good in the future as far as what weight he plays at and everything. You know, that’s what the minor leagues are for is to figure all that stuff out before you get there.
AF: So he’s basically still a growing kid getting coordinated.
AF: So what about his bat? Are you just letting him go or are you working on anything in particular with him?
GF: It’s nothing major with him. It’s just time and repetition and doing the right thing more often. It’s taking a little bit more focus and intent in his batting practice as far as what he’s trying to do. And it’s all coming. I was down here where he hit today, and he hit about twenty out.
AF: What about Max Muncy?
GF: Muncy’s been all-world on both sides. He’s had quality at-bats every single time out. He’s stronger and the ball’s getting off the bat even a little bit farther. You could see his power really starting to come…One of the issues was always how much power this guy was going to have. He only hit 7 [home runs] at Baylor, but a few of us thought there was going to be some juice in there.
AF: I’ve talked to him a couple of times and he seems to be a pretty smart hitter who really thinks about hitting and has a good approach and knows what he’s doing up there.
GF: He is, yeah. Up and down the whole system, he might be one of our most complete hitters. He’s got the swing to match the eyes, and his plan, his patience, his pitch selection – he’s got a clue, he’s advanced.
AF: So now let me ask you about a couple of pitchers. Where’s Michael Ynoa at at this stage of the game?
GF: He’s ahead of where he’s ever been. He had a couple of the best innings I’ve ever seen him throw over on the big league side. In his first outing, he was 93-96 mph. He was around the plate with his fastball and threw some of the best breaking balls I’ve seen him throw. The arm strength is fully recovered and the shape to the breaking ball is intact, so now it’s just about turning him loose and letting him pitch.
AF: My understanding is that you guys are looking at starting him out in the bullpen this year.
GF: Yeah, we’re probably going to keep him in the bullpen for a while and just let that arm play…
AF: …and not have to worry about trying to fine-tune too many pitches.
GF: The changeup’s still a work in progress with him.
AF: Now what about Raul Alcantara? He looked really good in the big league camp and everyone seems to be saying nothing but good things about him.
GF: Yeah, I think they were really impressed by him. He’s a strike thrower. He changes speeds. He’s got the fastball and the changeup. The breaking ball has always been on the bubble a little bit. It’s not a big, buckling pitch, but it’s a strike. His poise and everything else that goes into it, he was impressive over there in the big league games.
AF: He’s potentially got to be your top pitching prospect right now.
GF: Yeah, one of them. We got a nice little group out of last year’s draft who are going to be fun to watch.
AF: What about Arnold Leon? He’s looked awfully good in the big league camp this year.
GF: The odds are he’s going to go back to Triple-A and be in that rotation, but he’s pitched very well. He’s got a four pitch mix, he’s throwing strikes, he’s a lot more aggressive and he’s using his fastball better. He’s got a very good curveball, he’s got a tremendous changeup, and he’s up to 94 mph – he’s got some weapons. You know, he’s everything you’re looking for.
AF: He really looks like somebody who could be ready to step in if they need someone at some point this year.
GF: Yeah, he’s close. He’s close.
AF: What about the new guy in camp, Billy Burns? Are you as excited about him as everyone else is?
GF: Yeah, no doubt…I never saw him as an amateur, or even with Washington. So I was expecting a little bit more raw of a player, and he’s not. He gets good jumps in the outfield. I think he’s got an idea of what he’s doing at the plate. The worst thing we could do is try to get him to hit it harder and farther. But everything you’ve heard about the legs is dead on – when this guy puts it in play, there’s action.
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–GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH–
We asked Grady to tip us off to a few guys in the A’s system to keep an eye on and here’s what we got…
He’s very aggressive. He’s got a good fastball. He’s really taken to the changeup. He had a better breaking ball last year than he’s throwing in this camp. He’s kind of struggling with his breaker. But I really like the way he goes about it and the things he does.
We’re still building his innings, but he’s pitched 90 mph here. He’s got a good curveball. He’s really come a long way with the changeup. He’s around the plate. He’s got some strength in his body. And for 19, he’s doing great!
We took him fairly high last year. One of the issues with him was, for a college guy, he was very physically immature – nice frame, but no muscle – but he’s put on twenty pounds. And it’s good weight, and it is showing in the BPs and in the game work – so we’ll see!
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A’s Assistant GM David Forst on Top Prospects Russell & McKinney, Coco’s New Contract and What the A’s Expect from Reddick in 2014
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. First up was A’s assistant general manager David Forst who volunteered a generous bit of time to talk about some top major and minor league players for the A’s. We had the chance to ask him about two of the A’s most promising young players – shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney. Forst clearly couldn’t be more excited about the prospects for Russell, and he’s definitely not the only one in the A’s front office who feels that way.
Earlier in the day, in a question-and-answer session at the Oracle Arena, A’s general manager Billy Beane lit up like a Christmas tree when the subject of Russell came up. He characterized the young shortstop as a special kind of player who doesn’t come along very often and said he was “knocking on the door.” The A’s GM went on to enthuse, “We’ve had some great young players come through the system, and we’re as excited about Addison as we have been about a lot of the guys…that went on to be stars. So he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player.”
In his session, Forst also talked about some of the team’s top young pitching prospects and shared some interesting insights on the A’s draft philosophy that has seen the team increasingly shift its focus to high school players in recent years. On the major league front, the assistant GM discussed the challenge of having to fill a number of holes in the offseason, Coco Crisp’s recent contract extension, what the team expects from Josh Reddick and John Jaso in 2014, and how the A’s expect to contend in a strengthened American League West and push themselves past the competition in the postseason. But A’s Farm started things off by asking Forst to share his take on the A’s most promising young player in the pipeline…
On A’s top prospect Addison Russell…
I expect he’ll start the year at Midland. The thing that impressed me most about Addison last year, and there were obviously a lot…to see the way he kind of turned his season around…that tells me as much about Addison as a player as anything he did. You can go and watch him and see the power, see the swing, see the arm from the hole…with a guy like that, it’s really easy to see. But I remember having conversations in April with Todd Steverson, who at the time was our minor league hitting coordinator, and saying, “Hey, is this kid okay? Look, let him know we understand, he’s going to struggle.” And when I saw him myself in May, I said, “Hey, you’re not going to hit .200 forever – it’s just not going to happen.” I think he’s a confident kid, but anyone who spends a whole month doing that, there’s going to be a little bit of doubt. And within a couple weeks, he started to turn around. He’s going to hit, he’s going to have enough power for the middle of the diamond, he can throw from anywhere. There’s a reason he’s a top ten prospect in baseball. And to see him turn the season around, put everything together, and continue on into the [Arizona] Fall League, that’s a long year for anyone, particularly for a kid in his first full season…Everyone says we haven’t had a kid put it all together since Eric Chavez was there…and we’re going to see a lot of him in spring training. I know one of Bob Melvin’s main objectives is to get Addison a lot of reps because there’s no telling how soon he’s going to be here…You can see the tools and the ability, but when you spend time with him and you understand how much fun he has and how mentally strong he is, you really feel good about his chances going forward.
On last year’s top draft pick Billy McKinney…
I actually didn’t get to Arizona to see those guys. I saw Billy in March last year – I went to see him play in high school. There wasn’t a lot of consensus on the board last year in the draft room. It was just one of those years where we were picking so low that guys had different opinions. But by the time that we got down there, the nice thing was we did have a strong voice in Billy’s favor – and you always feel good about a pick when that happens. And he came out and hit the way we expected, sort of above what you’d expect for his years. He got a chance to go to Vermont and get his feet wet a little bit. And I know in Instructional League, he talked to [A’s farm director] Keith Lieppman and said, “Just so you know, I expect to follow Addison’s path and start in Stockton next year.” It’s nice to hear. You don’t put expectations on a kid like that, because we know how special Addison is, but we know he will go be with a full-season club. We know he can hit, he did a great job in center field, and we’re excited about Billy.
On the A’s recent shift to drafting top high school players like Russell and McKinney…
We didn’t like taking kids out of high school when the information was so limited. Things have evolved over the last ten years. These kids play in so many showcases – they play against the best competition in the country. We know so much more performance-wise about a high school kid than we did even five years ago, but particularly when the book (Moneyball) was written…Sure, you’re dealing with an extra three years of personal development, and any kid from the ages of 18 to 21 changes a lot…but I think we’ve gotten to the point where we are a lot more comfortable with what these kids show us on the field. Addison is from Pensacola, Florida. If he was only playing against kids in a 50-mile radius, then you’re not sure how he stacks up. But he went to California and played, he went to Texas and played, he went to Miami and played against all these kids. Billy did the same thing – he’s on that showcase circuit where you know how he stacks up against everybody in the country…When we didn’t take Mike Trout, it was because we thought, “this is a cold-weather kid from the northeast, we’re not sure how he stacks up against the rest of the country.” Well, if we’d stepped back to see that Mike did the same things and played those circuits and performed really well, we might have lined up our board differently. So really, it’s a different time with the high school kids. And if our scouts have seen a lot of them and they sort of check enough boxes, we feel really good about those guys – and Billy fell into that group.
Both Covey and Wahl were interesting conversations. Covey was a 1st-round pick in high school. Bobby was expected to potentially be a 1st-round guy, at least a top two guy. Both guys fell to an area where we paid over-slot for them because we wanted to, and we felt like both guys had some sort of marks against them that hurt their draft status. With Dylan, he never sort of performed the way people expected him to out of high school, but the stuff was always there and there was an upward trend in his college performance. And Bobby we knew had an injury history, but if we could get him healthy and keep him healthy, this was a 1st-round talent. So as far as the diversity of our draft portfolio, those guys fit really nicely after taking a guy like Billy [McKinney] in the 1st-round because they’re a little more advanced. And if they did stay healthy and kind of live up to what their pre-draft status was, you potentially have some top guys. And both guys went out and pitched great. Dylan obviously was able to make the jump to the Midwest League for a couple starts. But both those guys have a chance to start the year in Stockton, depending on how things shake out, and potentially move quickly because of their status as college players.
The goal of a 1st-round pick is always to get them here. You never draft someone hoping just to create an asset to move. With Grant and with Michael, it sort of worked out that way. But it’s a lot more rewarding certainly when Sonny Gray pitches here or ultimately when Addison Russell does get here. That’s what you want out of your 1st-round pick. I won’t say that we’re sort of focused on any position ever in the 1st-round – we’re looking for the best player…I know there’s been a lot made of trading those guys. Throughout the farm system, we’ve moved a lot of players and, as such, we’re sort of in a position where we need to rebuild. But there’s never a specific goal with a 1st-round pick.
On meeting the team’s key offseason needs…
When you look at our checklist at the end of October, replace Bartolo Colon, replace Grant Balfour, so you’ve got a starting pitcher and a closer. Craig Gentry was a guy we had been focused on for a long time who we just felt fit so well…with his ability to play all three outfield spots, running, hitting from the right side, so we sort of checked that one off…We added more pieces to the bullpen. We got some depth in the starting rotation with Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz. These were all things that we sort of laid out in October. You just hope you can hit as many as possible.
On how the A’s expect to best the rest of the west in 2014…
We still feel like the make-up of the complete 25-man roster gives us a chance to repeat, and as great a job as Bob Melvin has done the last two years of managing that group – putting guys in the right spots, platooning, using the bullpen. We feel like from 1 to 25, we’re just as strong as we were, if not stronger than, the last two years. And certainly the bullpen – with adding Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson to what was already an outstanding group, maybe potentially a full season of Dan Otero, and Jesse Chavez showed last year what he can do – that has to be a strength that we’re going to lean on a lot.
On the effect of increased national TV revenue on the team’s spending…
There’s no doubt our payroll is going to be higher this year probably than ever, certainly in the time I’ve been here. You just have to do the math and see we’re significantly above where we were last year. And that’s what allowed us to go get Jim Johnson, knowing there’s going to be a $10 million price tag on him, and to sign Scott Kazmir, even a move like signing Eric O’Flaherty, where you’re only adding a little bit for this year. But we had already sort of bumped up against our number, and [managing partner] Lew Wolff and [team president] Mike Crowley were very open to what we were trying to do with Eric for half a season and then backload the money. So there’s no doubt that, whether it’s the TV money, the success of the team, all these things have gone into ownership being very open to increasing the bar and letting us do some things this offseason that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
On avoiding long-term contracts and Coco Crisp’s extension…
I think we’ve benefited a lot from the flexibility over the last few years. Obviously having added Coco in the last 24 hours, but other than Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, there was nobody signed for 2015. We don’t necessarily want to recreate the team every year, because obviously the fans like the players that are here and we like the certainty of the guys that we know, but that we’ve given ourselves the ability to do it is a huge factor in our success. So to commit to a guy like Coco, obviously we know the guy, we know the player, he’s so important to what we do, and it was just an opportunity where we felt like this was the right dollar amount to commit to him beyond the next couple of years.
On expectations for Josh Reddick in 2014…
We certainly expect Josh to bounce back. I don’t think anybody knows fully how much his wrist affected him last year, and Josh will never ever admit it privately or publicly. But the fact is that he had that injury in Houston early in the year. And when you look at the difference in his numbers between 2012 and 2013, a player with his talent, you have to assume there’s something else going on. So we fully expect Josh to bounce back – and I fully expect to have him under contract hopefully sometime in the next couple weeks. But Josh adds so much with his defense alone that it’s hard to calculate his value to the team. And if he does get back to being the offensive player that we saw in 2012, he has the chance to carry this team at times.
On expectations for John Jaso’s return in 2014…
He’s coming to camp as a catcher. He’s cleared all exams. He’s had no setbacks with his physical activity. Look, you can’t predict how he reacts when he gets hit by a foul tip – that’s a medical issue. We did everything we could in terms of giving him the rest he needed and getting him to see the right people. But he comes into camp as a catcher – same situation with him and Derek Norris. The nice thing is Stephen Vogt sort of emerged last year in John’s absence, and that’s a great problem to have. If you end up having a roster with all three of those guys, they’re great options for the DH spot and the catching spot.
Each of those guys we felt addressed, not necessarily a weakness, but somewhere we could get better. It’s hard to say how they specifically help us in the postseason, but anytime your pitching depth is strong – whether it’s with Kaz or Jim Johnson or Gregerson – you expect that to come into play in a tight postseason game. Nick has played in the postseason quite a bit, he’s been on winning teams, he knows a lot of the guys around the league. There’s no way that his experience isn’t going to help us when it comes down the stretch – it’s sort of subjective to say exactly what that is, but we’ve seen it before with players that we’ve brought in. So hopefully these guys fit as well as the group has the last two years. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do is put that puzzle together to compete in September, and I think we have every reason to believe that these guys will fit.
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One of the most popular pieces we’ve featured here on A’s Farm over the past year or so was our profile of A’s super scout (and Moneyball bad guy) Grady Fuson. He was the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when he left the A’s to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers. Fuson returned to the A’s about three and a half years ago and currently serves as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
Prior to the amateur draft in early-June, Fuson’s duties primarily consist of scouting amateur prospects in preparation for the draft. But once the draft is complete, he begins a tour around the A’s minor league system, checking in on teams from Sacramento and Stockton to Midland and Beloit.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton during the last week of June, before second baseman Grant Green’s recent promotion to the A’s. We took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators and get the lowdown on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects, as well as some of the fresh new talent that’s just entered the system via this year’s draft. But we started out by taking a look at some of the prospects at the top of the system at Sacramento…
AF: Let’s start off with Sonny Gray, who’s obviously been having a great year at Sacramento. I know there were a few things that you guys were working on with him, but it really seems like he’s gotten over the hump at this point.
GF: Well you know, the credit goes to him. He’s not doing everything the way we wanted it done – there’s been variations to it. But that’s the deal with players – there’s give and take – and we don’t want to put players in positions where they’re doing things that are completely uncomfortable. So it’s trial and error. But he has been much more efficient. He’s using his changeup better – he’s still got a ways to go. But the consistency of his starts has been tremendous. With the exception of maybe one early in the year, he hasn’t had a bad start. I’m proud of him. He’s put himself on the map. When you look at our depth, there’s not too many years that go by that you don’t have to dip down there to grab a starter or two, and he’s put himself in a position to at some point be considered, or at least get his first taste of it.
AF: Well at this point, he certainly appears to be first in line based on what he’s done this year. Is there any one single thing that you’d pinpoint as the key to his success this season?
GF: Yeah, effort. I think he is starting to understand pace and rhythm and tempo, to control the effort level of his delivery. And he’s understanding this thing about how to disrupt timing, instead of being hard with everything.
AF: So it’s really about varying his effort.
GF: Yeah. If you go back to all the good things about him when we drafted him, besides his stuff, this guy’s always been a bulldog, he’s always been a competitor. Do not count this guy out – you know, he’ll come back and find a way to kick your ass if you count him out. And all those things are such a big part of it, his character and mentality on the mound.
AF: Another guy at Sacramento who seems to be on a similar trajectory is outfielder Michael Choice. He also seems to have turned a corner this year. So how do you see his development at this point?
GF: I don’t know what clicked over the winter, but something really clicked and he came into camp a little bit of a changed man in his whole approach. He’s slowed some things down like we’ve been asking him to do and has bought into a couple of other things. I think he’s developing a whole awareness of how guys pitch him and what they try to do. This is his third full year now, and I think it’s just maturity. But I’m proud of him. He hasn’t made people walk him off of center field yet. And the only reason we’re playing him in left more right now is if there is a time that he has to go up, with Crisp, with Young, with Cespedes, he probably wouldn’t play center over those guys. So he needs to learn a little bit about some corners, because the ball comes off differently.
AF: Is there any one thing that’s been the key for him?
GF: Maturity. He’s growing up. He’s maturing into that major league mentality you’re waiting to see. You know, most of these guys are kids. And sometimes, as frustrated as we get, you’ve got to remind yourself, “God, he’s just a kid!” But you can tell when they start to speak smart – you can tell by the things they’re saying back to you. That’s when the maturity thing kicks in and they start to give you the right answers – and bingo! But everything else with Michael is the same. He’s healthy, he’s playing every day, he’s having good at-bats, he’s staying consistent.
AF: Is there anything else that you’d like to see him working on at this point that he needs to do to make himself a complete player?
GF: Long term, to stay in center so that we don’t need a center fielder better than him for a long time, I think he’s going to have to be a guy who diligently works on his reads and his routes because he’s going to have to do it with a lot of instinctual things. He’s always had a weakness closing in on the wall. He’s gotten better – he’s working at it. So I think he’s the kind of guy who’s eventually going to have to do certain drills that are going to keep all that really sharp.
AF: What about another outfielder in Sacramento who everyone was so excited about in spring training, Shane Peterson? He started out well but it looks like he’s been struggling a bit lately.
GF: I don’t know that he’s struggling. He’s just not putting up crazy numbers. He’s doing what he does. He had such a tremendous spring, and almost made the damn club. I just think he’s in that mode where it’s not coming out big every night. But the way he goes about playing the game, there’s no issues there.
AF: So you think the impression he made in the spring still lingers with the A’s front office.
GF: Oh, without a doubt.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? Where do you see him with his hitting and with his development at second base at this point?
GF: At second base, he’s still learning the nuances. This is actually his first full year of playing one spot, and there are a lot of little nuances, so he’s still learning that. His errors have been a combination of a lot of different things, maybe some throws on pivots and things. But as far as what he’s doing at the plate, it’s what he does. He hits .300, he’s starting come up a little bit now with the homers, and as he’s seeing it better his walks are going up. He’s right where he needs to be.
AF: Do you see his future more likely as a second baseman or as more of a multi-purpose type of guy?
GF: It just depends on when he goes up and what the need is. But the great thing about him is he can go up and, if Bob Melvin had to use him in three or four different spots, he can do that. But I do think that second base is the one spot that, since the time we started it, he’s gotten a lot better. Center wasn’t that good a look, we questioned whether he was going to be a true everyday shortstop – the growth there just kind of fizzled. But second base, he’s gotten better at it every step of the way.
AF: So you really feel that you’ve seen more discernible progress at second base than any other spot you’ve had him at so far.
AF: Another infielder at Sacramento is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been bouncing all over the place lately – short, second, third…
GF: Well, they had to make him more versatile. He had the rough spring. He got hurt. We open up the year and Donaldson’s killing it and Lowrie’s playing great. You know, he’s in a tough spot right now. So if he’s going to come up, he’s got to learn all three spots. And he has not spent a lot of time at second or third in his whole career. The good thing is he’s obviously playing better and doing things better than what we saw in spring training.
AF: Well, the other piece of the infield puzzle in Sacramento is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a little shortstop this year…
GF: He’s played a great shortstop – he’s played very well.
AF: So if he remains in the A’s system in the future, would you see him having to take on more of a utility role, perhaps?
GF: Yeah, possibly, unless he gets a chance to go in there and do something in a spot and play every day and regain something. You know, this is what having depth is all about. I mean, Billy’s sitting back there right now with a ton of chips. We’ve got guys to bring up if somebody goes down who we feel pretty good about, and he’s got some players he can discuss with people if the need arises.
AF: Now in Stockton, the A’s top draft pick last year, 19-year-old Addison Russell, got off a rough start, but he’s been picking it up over the past month or so. So where do you see his development’s at at this point?
GF: He’s way on target. What he went through was everything we somewhat predicted coming out of camp. You’ve got to remember, there’s not too many 19-year-olds in the California League. You know, you go to a level where there’s more guys who throw breaking balls for strikes, there’s more guys who have little cutters, little two-seamers – things he’s never really seen. It’s different. But you’re hoping that he grows and he learns and, by the second half, things start to turn and he has a quality second half. And his attitude’s great, he’s working at it, he’s not getting fatigued. He’s smart enough to start to understand where he’s getting exposed and how we’re going to fix it. So to me, his development is right on target.
AF: So you think it’s pretty much been the natural progression of events – it took him a little while to get used to things, and now he’s gotten used to it…
GF: You know, we could have done it the other way. We could have kicked him off at Beloit and let him somewhat dominate again. But he wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as he’s getting out of this learning experience.
AF: The bigger challenge. Well, he is still the youngest guy in the league. How has he looked to you in the field?
GF: Super. Look, he’s got 9-10 errors for a high school kid playing on these fields in the Cal League. You know, I’ve been around a lot of shortstops we developed who came through here who’d have 30 at this time. Tejada, Batista, those guys made 40-50 errors in this league. And he’s got 9-10 tops. I think he’s doing pretty good.
AF: Another guy who’s had a really good year in Stockton is first baseman Max Muncy. I remember talking to you about him in the spring and you said you guys were working on developing his power a bit more. So, with 20 home runs under his belt now, it looks like that’s worked out pretty well.
GF: When we took him, a lot of people questioned how much power’s in there. He only hit 6-7 home runs at Baylor. But you watch him in BP in college prior to the draft and you can tell there’s power in there – he just didn’t know how to get to it yet. Last summer, we just kind of let him go play. But then in instructional league, we got started with getting him to feel what it’s like to get some pitches middle-in and how that works to get the head out. We had the same story when we talked about Grant Green a year or so ago, and look what he’s doing now. But the great thing is he’s got great balance, he’s got good rhythm in his swing, and he’s got a tremendous eye, so he sees the baseball well. He swings at strikes and he takes balls – and that makes hitting so much easier. But from a power standpoint, I think he’s growing on everybody.
AF: Yeah, I would imagine you couldn’t be happier with the progress he’s made at this point. A guy who’s had a rougher time of it this year at Stockton though is 2011’s 3rd-round draft pick, third baseman B.A. Vollmuth. So what’s the source of the problem with him?
GF: It’s funny you bring him up, I was just talking to him the other day. He’s just not adjusting well in the strike zone. And I think he’s trying to be too big of a master. He’s trying to hit outer-half pitches the other way and pitches in the middle up the middle – he’s just trying to do too much that he’s not really capable of doing yet. So we talked about staying with his strength. Just look middle/middle-in and if they throw you away, just spit on it and let it go. But look middle/middle-in, and when you get them, hammer them. And just avoid the outer half of the strike zone right now until you get two strikes. But quit trying to be a master all over the strike zone right now. So we’ll see – he’s had a rough go of it.
AF: Now in terms of pitchers, what about right-hander Raul Alcantara? He recently came up to Stockton and I know you had a chance to see his first start.
GF: Yeah, good first one. He didn’t try to do anything different. He commanded his fastball well, both sides of the plate. He’s got a good changeup, and his breaking ball’s starting to show some promise. The breaking ball was always the iffy pitch. His slurve is now turning into somewhat of a legit curveball, and he’s getting some depth to it so he’s getting some swings and misses. And he’s got tempo, he’s got clean moves in his delivery. He’s still young, he’s only 20. He’s doing really good. A good second half here and you never know where it puts him for next year.
AF: Yeah, he could be a fast riser. Another guy who’s been doing a pretty good job at Stockton is Tanner Peters. What’s your take on him at this point?
GF: He’s doing good. We’ve been playing with the breaking ball for a couple of years. He’s always had a good changeup. His velocity is starting to hold. He’s a guy who maybe touches 91-92 mph but pitches at 87-88 mph, but now he’s pitching at 90 mph. We’ve talked about him using his sinker more instead of the four-seamer. He’s got a tendency with his delivery style to have a lot of misses, and misses in bad places, with his four-seamer. So we’ve been talking to him a lot about throwing his sinkers more, which will make him be more efficient, because he can get up with his pitch counts too real easy. But he’s had a very good first half, and we expect it to keep going.
AF: Well, it seems like, as a young pitcher, if you can just keep it together and make it through the Cal League without too much damage, you ought to be all right!
GF: Every ballpark here is a unique experience. You know, you go to High Desert and Lancaster and it’s like a pinball game.
AF: Well the guy who really started out great in Stockton this year and moved up to Midland is Drew Granier. He was dominant last season in the Midwest League and had a great first half in the Cal League this year. Now I know he wasn’t a high draft pick or a top prospect to start out, but what do you think about what he’s doing right now?
GF: Well, he’s been great. It’s hard to pick out negatives when your numbers look the way his do. But there are still some things we’re trying to get from him that he’s fighting a little bit. He’s not as efficient as he needs to be – he gets a little scattered. He’s not using his changeup to the level we need him to use it. But when you win a bunch of games last year and then you come in and win another half a dozen here, it’s kind of hard for him to go, “Okay, let me do it your way.” But the good thing was in his first start in Double-A, if I remember right, he threw 99 pitches and 66 strikes. That’s as efficient a game chart as I’ve seen this year from him, and he also threw 12% changeups, and it’s usually about 6%. But let me tell you, this guy grinds, this guy competes. His breaking ball is getting sharper – guys do not see it, they don’t get good swings. That’s why his strikeouts are so high. When you look at guys in this league who have high strikeout rates, it’s usually a college guy like him who’s getting it done with his breaking ball. But the next level is when all the other stuff starts to come into play. So I’m glad we’ve challenged him. He deserved being moved up. And hopefully he runs with everything we’ve been trying to pound into him.
AF: So he could be a guy who, with the right approach, could really come from the back of the pack to the top of the pack.
GF: Without a doubt. You get this guy between the white lines and he’s something. He fights you out there.
AF: Does anybody else on Midland’s pitching staff jump out at you right now?
GF: You know, Murphy Smith made a nice adjustment. (Minor league pitching coordinator) Scott Emerson picked up on something in spring training and got him closing up a little bit more on his load and it has helped him keep that fastball in the strike zone more, and that’s really what’s helped him a ton. And Sean Murphy continues to compete. We talked about him last year, and I thought he was one of the most improved pitchers in the system a year ago, and he continues to do what he’s doing.
AF: A guy who’s been having a great season at Midland is first baseman Anthony Aliotti. He’s been leading all A’s minor leaguers in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all year. I know he hasn’t been considered a top prospect, but is there anything more that he can do to put himself on the map?
GF: No, he’s just waiting for an opportunity to get to the next level – in fact, a couple of guys are. It just depends on what’s going on at Sacramento to get these guys moving.
AF: So people do see and appreciate what he’s been doing at Midland this year?
GF: Without a doubt.
AF: Now I wanted to ask you about a guy who was blowing everybody’s mind with his hitting in the first half of last year but who’s really struggled this season. Do you have any insight into what’s been going on with Miles Head this year?
GF: Well, he’s just had a bad 2013. He showed up to camp extremely heavy. And we got him started doing something about it. And then, for whatever reason, he was swinging at air down there in Midland for a while before he got hurt. He’s just been hurt – his shoulder’s barking again, and we had to sit him again. So he’s just had a bad 2013.
AF: So I guess the first thing that needs to happen is that he needs to get healthy…
GF: He needs to get healthy, and in shape. And then we can get his mind right and get this thing going.
AF: Now what about all the young guys at Beloit? That team’s really been having a great season this year.
GF: Yeah, it’s great. They’re having a blast. Ryan Christenson is a hall-of-fame first-year manager. He’s doing a great job. He’s picked up on so many important things. He’s been a great leader for those kids. Just go around the lineup – Maxwell, Olson, Bostick, Robertson, Nunez – they’re all on target. They’re all playing super.
AF: I was going to ask you about the decision to hire Ryan Christenson as the manager at Beloit with all those top prospects there. He’s a former A’s outfielder, but he really didn’t have any previous managing experience.
GF: We were going to hire him just to be the hitting coach, but we had some things happen that kind of forced our hand a little bit. But as we sit here now, there’s not a person in the organization who isn’t just pleased as hell that he’s stepped up and done the job he’s done.
AF: Now what about the job that former top prospect Michael Ynoa has done in Beloit this year?
GF: He’s going 5 innings now routinely, throwing 75-85 pitches, and throwing hard. And the breaking ball’s really getting good. The breaking ball’s now getting a little bit closer to the projection breaking ball that they all thought he might have. I don’t know what his velocity is every night, but I know he’s been up to 97 mph numerous times and pitching 92-95 mph – so you can’t throw it a whole lot harder than that. And he’s healthy – he hasn’t missed a start.
AF: Taking a look at the draft for a minute, what about the A’s top draft pick this year, center fielder Billy McKinney? What did you see when you were scouting him?
GF: I just thought he was one of those special hitters – very instinctual, great swing, balance, aggressiveness, knows the strike zone for an 18-year-old kid. He’s not raw, he runs, he throws, he’s got all the equipment. There’s going to be some power. And where we were in the draft, if this kind of guy got to us in this draft, I’m in!
AF: So did you fall in love with him the first time you scouted him in high school?
GF: Yeah, but he walked five times. They walked him five times, all intentional. I had to come back four days later.
AF: Well at least you knew they were giving him plenty of respect anyway! So did you get a chance to see much of the second hitter the A’s took this year, infielder Chad Pinder?
GF: Yeah, Pinder’s a slender 6’2” who’s got room to grow. He’s got good feet, he throws, he’s a good defender. He ended up playing a lot of shortstop in college this year, but I think down the road he’s probably a third baseman. There’s a chance for some power in there. There’s some things that have to get cleaned up in his approach a bit, but I think he’s a solid pick for where he got him.
AF: Was there anybody else in this year’s draft class who really jumped out at you?
GF: Yeah, Chris Kohler, the high school lefty we got in the compensation round. I liked him a lot and thought he was a great pick where we got him. He’s a 90 mph guy with a good curveball. He’s got fair location now for an 18-year-old. He’s a real baseball guy.
AF: Well, going back to the big league club, with people talking about all the guys down at Sacramento – Grant Green, Jemile Weeks, Hiro Nakajima – do you feel that the A’s have the best defensive middle infielders in the organization up in Oakland on the A’s roster right now?
GF: The most consistent, yes. You know, Sogie’s dynamite. Rosie’s a very good shortstop. Lowrie is playing solid, but the difference is what he’s bringing to us offensively, which we haven’t had out of that position in a while. And that’s the reason we’re winning – we’re winning because we’re a much more offensive club than we have been. We’re on base more, we walk more, and we homer – and our defense is still really, really good. You know, people forget, we’ve got a nice club right now. It’s hard to pick a hole on that club.
AF: Well, that’s always good to hear. Thanks a lot!
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While soaking up plenty of Arizona sun during our spring training tour, we also wanted to make sure we got a little light shed on some of the A’s top prospects by folks in the know. So we took the opportunity to talk to three guys who really ought to know the score – Grady Fuson, Farhan Zaidi and Bob Melvin.
Grady Fuson is a long-time baseball man who was formerly the A’s director of scouting. One of baseball’s most respected talent evaluators, he was also depicted as one of Moneyball‘s biggest bad guys, but he’s back with the A’s again as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
In his fifth season as the A’s director of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi is one of the game’s most forward-thinking front office executives. With a doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley, he is often known as the A’s “numbers guy” and readily admits to feeling somewhat naked without his computer.
Bob Melvin is the popular and affable manager of the A’s who, in 2012, led the team to its first division title since 2006. The former catcher spent 10 years playing in the major leagues and was named AL Manager of Year for his efforts with the A’s in 2012.
We asked this trio of talent evaluators to weigh in on some of the A’s top prospects, and what we heard left us feeling pretty good about the future!
On shortstop Addison Russell…
Bob Melvin: He left us with impressions when he came out and just took batting practice with us during the season. During spring, he certainly didn’t look like a 19-year-old kid. He has a great approach at the plate, a very good work ethic – great athlete. He’s got a chance to be a quick mover.
Grady Fuson: Big league camp didn’t phase him. He went in there and stood around like a veteran. He wasn’t nervous. He was aggressive. He played the same style of game that he’s played since the day we signed him. And I think everybody top to bottom’s been pleased…I think we all see all the tools. It’s not hard to know this guy’s really got some quickness and speed. He’s aggressive on ground balls. He’s got a knack for reading ground balls. He controlled the strike zone in big league camp, so it wasn’t like he was swinging at air or anything. He’s just got a very good awareness about the game for a young kid to go with all the tools he’s got…He’s a great kid. He comes to work every day – he’s quiet but he’s deadly…As he goes along, we’re going to keep an eye on his throwing. It has nothing to do with his arm strength. It’s more about building accuracy and pace and footwork into his game. Other than that, there’s really no holes to poke at offensively. The more he plays, the more he’s going to get comfortable with the strike zone a little bit – what he can hit, what he can’t hit – and that’ll come. But this kid really has no major flaws to really speak of. It’s nice every once in a while to have a player where you can go, “Hey, let’s just go play!”
On outfielder Michael Choice…
Grady Fuson: He’s ahead of the curve as far as when he left Midland last year. What little time we got with him in instructs (instructional league), something’s clicked. His whole approach is so much more balanced and connected. The first 5-6 at-bats I saw him, I kept waiting for him to kind of get out of sorts, but he hasn’t one time. I’m proud of him. He looked great in big league camp. He’s got another burst of energy to his game. He played center field in big league camp very well – 5 of those innings a day over there that sun’s right in your face. And the great thing is, since he’s come over to minor league camp, he’s had the same work ethic, same aggressiveness, same energy. He’s been great…It looks like he’s really figured some things out.
Bob Melvin: This is the first time we’ve been able to see him get a lot of bats and do the things that the organization expects of him. He’s a highly-touted prospect with power and speed. I think he came to this camp really wanting to show the big league staff what he’s all about – and he did that. I mean, it was a very impressive camp. He fell off a little bit – I think he took a couple of 0-fors at the end. But he and Shane Peterson have been terrific throughout the whole camp. And this is a guy who’s going to knock the door down and fight his way in at some point in time, whether it’s next year, whether it’s this year – a September call-up or an injury or something like that. He’s really close to being a big leaguer.
On outfielder Shane Peterson…
Bob Melvin: He’s the one guy here who’s played every single game (this spring). You usually ease your way into it, but he’s done anything but that. He continues to hit. He plays different positions. I haven’t even used him at first, which is probably his most comfortable position, but he’s looked like a true outfielder. You look at the numbers, and he’s had a spectacular camp.
On infielder Grant Green…
Grady Fuson: To some degree, offensively, he could be big-league ready – he’s close. He’s got great at-bats going. He’s doing what Grant Green does. He’s been through a year and a half to two year period where we’ve been working on getting him to be more aggressive on the inner half and feeling what it’s like to turn on some balls. It’s helped his power production. Once again, he’s kind of getting his feet wet at a new position, but it’s the one position that you’re really seeing him grow at defensively. He is getting better every day. So obviously he’ll go back to Sacramento and we’ll see how things go in the big leagues to start – but Grant is very, very close.
Farhan Zaidi: I think there’s a growing level of confidence that second base is his best position. And because it’s his best position, probably now and also in the long run, giving him time to develop there is a priority. But we have other guys who need to play that position, so he may not get as many reps there as we would like in a perfect world just because we have to work other guys in there. But from an organizational perspective, more and more people are feeling good about the progress he’s made over there. And he could actually be an asset over there in the long term once he gets more reps and gets more comfortable playing there.
On infielder Miles Head…
Grady Fuson: He didn’t get that much time in big league camp, so he’s kind of getting a late start playing every day here (in minor league camp). But he should be ready to go. Obviously, he can’t do what he did in Stockton – that was the most unreal half you’re ever going to see. But he’s been getting his knocks, he’s swinging aggressive, getting time at third and first – and that’s what we’ll expect when he goes out.
On pitcher Dan Straily…
Farhan Zaidi: I think he’s gotten a lot more comfortable in this camp, being in the big leagues, being around the big league team and staff. He’s had some things to work on this spring, just like most pitchers have. But you know, we sort of have this notion of building the starting pitching depth out 8 or 9 guys. And if you’re the 6th guy, it means we have a pretty high level of confidence – we know we’re going to need you at some point…He’s going to be a big factor in our season…He might not be in there for every turn of the 162 game season, but he’s going to play a big role for sure.
Bob Melvin: He just needs to be more consistent at times – and he knows it. He had a tough first inning the other day where he gave up 3 runs and then he pitched really well after that. It’s getting rid of that one inning, or getting through games a little bit more in the fashion that we think he can do it – and he’s probably not quite there yet. But he’s still a young guy, and we’ve had a lot of young guys perform well here. He was instrumental down the stretch with a few games for us last year. He has some experience pitching in a pennant race. But I know he probably looks at his performance this spring and thinks there’s a little bit more in the tank for him and wants to finish up strong.
Grady Fuson: He just seemed a hair out of sync (this spring). He wasn’t locating his fastball as well. And when he doesn’t locate his fastball well, then his sequences don’t come together. As far as his stuff, his stuff was still solid – 90-93mph, good breaker, slider got a little flat at times, good changeup – but he just wasn’t getting ahead of hitters enough as he’d done a year ago…You know, it’s his first big league camp – he knows he’s pressing to make a spot in that rotation.
On pitcher Sonny Gray…
Grady Fuson: His stuff is good. It’s all going to get down to location. If Sonny can improve on pounding the strike zone, he’s going to be a competitive kid. But he’s got to find a way to get ahead earlier in counts and work on the efficient side of being a starter versus the overpowering side of being a starter. He knows it. He’s trying to work through it. And right now, it comes and goes. So it’s a work in progress.
Farhan Zaidi: As much as we have invested in him, he’s a guy who we would want to only bring up when we really feel he’s ready, not sort of out of a sense of urgency for a guy. I think he just has to work on pitching more efficiently. If you’re in Triple-A and you’re throwing 100 pitches in a 6-inning stint, that’s not going to work at the big league level. The guys who have success moving from Double-A and Triple-A to the big leagues are the guys who pitch really efficiently at the minor league level and have short innings, don’t walk guys, all that kind of stuff. I think that’s going to be the biggest issue for him.
On pitcher Andrew Werner…
Grady Fuson: He’s kind of an under-the-radar lefty. He doesn’t throw overly hard. But he’s a locate guy. He’s got a real good changeup. He’s got a solid breaker. So he’s a lot like most lefties who throw 87-88mph who can pitch a little bit.
On pitcher Jesse Chavez…
Grady Fuson: Jesse Chavez has tremendous stuff. It’s just about him harnessing it, and he’s dominated in Triple-A. So it’s just about him getting used to playing in front of a second deck and the lights not blinding him a little bit. But we feel good about having him down there (at Sacramento).
On pitcher Michael Ynoa…
Grady Fuson: The progress continues to be nothing but ‘hang a star on it!’ He’s healthy. His velocity continues to climb. He’s been up to 95-96mph here. His breaking ball’s sharper because the velocity’s back. He’s been around the strike zone. You know, we’re still going to proceed with a little caution, but he’s been good.
Farhan Zaidi: His stuff has been really good. His fastball has been up to the mid-90s. He shows his other pitches. He’s a big presence on the mound. He just needs reps and he needs to get more consistent. If you haven’t pitched at that level, and things start unraveling – just getting out of jams, not letting innings totally get away from you. But the stuff has been fine…The stuff is where you were hoping it would progress to when we signed him – I mean, we thought he might be in the big leagues by now. So all the ingredients are there. It’s just about him getting out and pitching…I think he has the ability to make up for a lot of that lost time, so we’re looking forward to him pitching.
On infielder Daniel Robertson…
Grady Fuson: We’re still just being cautious with the knee. Little by little, he’s done more on the field, so he has not played in games. He feels great. We’re just taking it slow…In instructional league, his spike caught up on the mat hitting in BP and kind of tore a little meniscus in there. So the odds are he probably won’t break (camp). We’ll keep him down here a little bit and make sure it’s tested. But hopefully by the middle of the month, he’s good to go.
On first baseman Matt Olson…
Grady Fuson: Olson’s been great. He just picked up where he left off. He’s gotten a little bigger and stronger. He’s having a nice minor league camp. He’s ready to go.
Farhan Zaidi: The guys over there have been very excited about him. I think he’s hit a handful of homers in minor league games already. He has that kind of power…and that’s got people pretty excited.
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Knowing he’s always got an eye on the future, we took the opportunity to ask Farhan about the possible value of applying analytics to the subject of health and injuries in order to better anticipate the physical resilience of individual players, and here’s what he had to say…
Farhan Zaidi: There’s more and more of this stuff – either analyzing historic DL data or injury data, or also mechanics. I don’t know that there are a lot of great, or certain, answers at this point. But I think it’s a major next frontier for analysis. It started off with offense, then it moved to defense, measuring fielding, now I think this is the next frontier for analytics. We do a fair amount of that – it’s sort of an ongoing process…Even getting a little bit better at predicting players’ health going forward is really valuable. So that’s something that we’re working on and trying to get better at every year…Even if you improve your predictive power a little bit, that can be worth a lot in the long run.
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–GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH–
We asked Grady to tip us off to three guys in the A’s system we ought to keep an eye on, and here’s what we got…
Left-Handed Hitting First Baseman
Age: 22 / Drafted 2012 – 5th Round
He was good last year after we signed him. He went to Burlington (Class-A) right out of the draft and held his own. This guy gets it. He knows how to play the game. He’s got a good swing. He’s very hitter-ish. He’s always had a little bit more power in the bat than his numbers show. And we’re working with him to take advantage of the shorter parts of the park – and it’s coming. He’s been a jewel in camp. He’s firmed his body up a little bit more. He’s a solid defender. Keep your eye on him!
Age: 22 / Drafted 2012 – 14th Round
He closed in Vermont last year. He threw from 25 different slots. In instructional league, we tried to calm him down, gave him one slot, and he went home all winter and worked on it. And he’s gotten so much cleaner now that we’re thinking about maybe starting him and pushing him with some innings. He’s got a good arm. He’s got a nasty changeup…He wiped guys out as a closer, but the more you can get on the mound, the more you’re going to learn.
Age: 21 / Drafted 2012 – 18th Round
Junior college kid – he only pitched 1/3 of an inning for us last year, so I didn’t even know who this guy was. The other day, he comes out here, he’s throwing 94mph with a nasty breaker – good body, good delivery. Today he goes 3 shutout innings, touching 95mph – I’m in!
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Well, the results are in – and in our first year out of the box, A’s Farm was ranked in the Top 10 MLB blogs for 2012! At our peak late in the season, we were averaging almost 5,000 hits per week and almost 20,000 hits per month. And we want to be sure to thank all you devoted A’s fans who are obviously committed to learning as much as possible about the organization from top to bottom.
We also want to thank MLB Trade Rumors for repeatedly featuring A’s Farm as one of their top blog picks of the week, Baseball Reference for regularly featuring us in their player news section, and A’s Nation who asked us to provide a weekly minor league update during the season for the hordes of A’s fans who get their A’s news from the biggest and best A’s blog on the web.
In 2012, A’s Farm profiled the A’s new players and top prospects, offered progress reports on the team’s top draft picks, named the A’s organizational all-stars, and featured interviews with GM Billy Beane, along with players like Josh Reddick, Derek Norris and Sean Doolittle, and front office personnel like assistant GM David Forst, scouting director Eric Kubota and director of player personnel Billy Owens. And in one of our most popular pieces of the year, A’s Farm profiled A’s super-scout and Moneyball bad guy Grady Fuson. All that in addition to our daily updates on all the A’s minor league affiliates – the Sacramento River Cats, Midland RockHounds, Stockton Ports, Burlington Bees, Vermont Lake Monsters and the Arizona League A’s.
Stay tuned for much more right here in 2013, and be sure to like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm to keep up to date on all the A’s minor league teams and top prospects down on the farm!
Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by for helping make A’s Farm one of the Top 10 MLBlogs in April – pretty amazing for just our 4th full month!
And remember to check in with A’s Farm right here for daily updates on all the A’s minor league games and top prospects as the season continues to unfold!
Exclusive: A’s Super Scout (and Moneyball Bad Guy) Grady Fuson Gives the Lowdown on Life in Baseball and A’s Prospects to Watch
Grady Fuson is one of the baseball world’s most respected talent evaluators. He’s spent the past 30 years in pro ball, scouting talent at every level. As the A’s scouting director from 1995-2001, Fuson was responsible for drafting the A’s big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito over three consecutive years (1997-1999), and then drafted Rich Harden the following year (2000). Prior to that, as the A’s national cross-checker, he was involved in the drafting of Jason Giambi and Ben Grieve, as well as the signing of Miguel Tejada. Many of these players formed the core of some very successful A’s teams, and some went on to contribute to other winning teams as well.
In his final draft as the A’s scouting director, Fuson drafted high school pitcher Jeremy Bonderman in the first round, causing a certain degree of controversy which was touched upon in the best-selling book, Moneyball. While well known and well respected within the baseball fraternity, Grady Fuson probably became best known to the general public when he was portrayed in the film version of Moneyball as the obstinate scout fired by general manager Billy Beane (as played by Brad Pitt) after a dramatic and heated confrontation.
What your average filmgoer doesn’t know is that there was no such firing. Fuson actually left the organization for another opportunity with the Texas Rangers. And he has been back working with the A’s as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane for the past two years now. It turns out that, sometimes, real-life really is more interesting than fiction. And wanting to get a real-life look at a life in baseball, we took the opportunity to talk with Fuson about his journey in baseball as well as to get his take on some of the A’s most intriguing prospects.
After coaching baseball at the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, Grady Fuson got his first opportunity to join the scouting fraternity in 1982 when an old friend (and likely drinking buddy) of Billy Martin’s who had been scouting the northwest area for the A’s retired, and the team asked Fuson if he’d like to take over the territory. He thought the opportunity sounded intriguing and signed on, agreeing to work as an area scout in the northwest. During the spring, he’d keep tabs on all the promising young amateur prospects throughout the region. And during the summer, he’d coach short-season rookie clubs for the organization in such exotic locales as Medford and Idaho Falls.
By 1985, he was given responsibility for the northern California area as well and relocated to the Bay Area for the first time. In 1991, after nearly ten years of beating the bushes for prospects, the team made him their national cross-checker, basically the right-hand man to the scouting director. The position involved personally checking on all the top prospects recommended by the team’s area scouts and getting some perspective on all of them so that the organization could accurately gauge how they all stacked up.
After a few years in that position, a period which included the drafting of future MVP Jason Giambi and future Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve as well as the signing of future MVP Miguel Tejada, Fuson was promoted to the position of scouting director by A’s general manager Sandy Alderson. And thus began what he calls “one of the proudest times of my life” – a time during which the A’s drafted future Cy Young winner Barry Zito as well as future All-Stars Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Rich Harden and Eric Chavez.
But his first draft as the A’s new scouting director involved a very difficult decision – the decision whether or not to draft the promising Cuban exile pitcher, Ariel Prieto (who’s now back with the A’s acting as the interpreter for new Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes).
“Todd Helton was my guy the whole time. This guy Ariel Prieto comes out of nowhere in the last month. So I fly in to see him and, boy, he’s really good. So I say, ‘Sandy, there’s a guy here who’s much different than the rest of these amateurs. He’s older, he’s more polished. This guy might be big league ready real fast.’ So we had many pow-wows about which way to go – Helton, Prieto, Helton, Prieto, Helton, Prieto. And when it all came down to it, he wanted to go that way, and that’s the way we went.”
Needless to say, Ariel Prieto didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and Todd Helton is still playing today. The previous year had seen the A’s draft a sweet-swinging slugger out of Texas in the first round – a strapping young lad by the name of Ben Grieve. The outfielder would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1998, also winning the hearts of A’s fans in the process. But somewhere along the line, his progress seemed to hit a wall, he was traded away by the A’s and, by the time he was 29, he was out of the game altogether. And ever since, A’s fans have been left asking, “What went wrong with Ben Grieve?”
“The passion for the game just left him completely. Something was just missing. But this guy was just born to hit. But what happened? It’s a mind-boggler. He just lost his passion, his energy, his work ethic – to get bigger, to get stronger, to get better. He just took it all for granted. And his body started to slow up at a young age, and things just stopped firing. It’s a very unique story. Still, to this day, his was one of the best swings I’ve ever scouted.”
But after that, the A’s used their top picks wisely, having perhaps as much success in the draft as any team in the game and, in the process, forming the foundation of the winning A’s teams to come.
“One of the things I’ll always be proudest of is, in my years as scouting director, we nailed it on number ones – Chavez in ‘96, Mulder in ‘98, Zito in ‘99, even my last year in ’01 with Bonderman and Crosby. Collectively speaking, we drafted well.”
During that time, current A’s GM Billy Beane moved up from his position as assistant general manager to take over for long-time general manager Sandy Alderson in a transition that Fuson called “seamless.” The two worked together as general manager and scouting director for four years, acquiring players like Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden during that time. There were clearly some differences of opinion on the drafting of a high school pitcher – Jeremy Bonderman – in the first round of the draft in 2001 (more on that later). But it wasn’t philosophical differences – or any sort of dramatic confrontation – that caused Fuson to part ways with the A’s. It was simply an offer too good to refuse from the rival Texas Rangers following the 2001 season.
“The Rangers called Billy and asked for permission to interview me for GM after Doug Melvin was let go. They invited three guys to come back for a second interview – Dave Dombrowski, John Hart and myself. Tom Hicks ended up choosing John Hart, but he wanted me to come in too. They throw in this assistant GM thing. And they want John Hart as the GM for three years. They want me to come in and overhaul and redo scouting and player development and oversee all that.”
But the A’s front office wasn’t too thrilled with the fact that they had allowed the Rangers to interview Fuson for one position but now he was being offered another.
“Billy made it very, very hard for me to say ‘yes.’ We talked a lot that night before I decided, and he offered me a great deal to stay. His loyalty and belief in me really came out at a different level. But after being with Oakland for twenty years, the opportunity to go somewhere new, oversee player development and scouting and take that next step, was an opportunity in my life that I thought I had to take.”
It wasn’t that easy though. Always looking for an opportunity to improve themselves, the A’s insisted on being compensated for the loss of Fuson. They hoped to wrangle a player like Hank Blalock out of the Rangers but, in the end, settled for a financial compensation package determined by the commissioner. Fuson was reluctant to disclose the level of compensation the A’s received in return for losing his services but did admit, “You could sign a real good player with it.”
Implicit in Fuson’s deal with the Rangers was the understanding that he would be viewed as a sort of GM-in-waiting when the time came for John Hart to step aside. And that time seemed to come in the summer of 2004 when, despite upping the payroll by $40 million to a whopping $110 million, the Rangers were still struggling to win and the pressure on the team to do something was mounting. It was at this time, shortly before the All-Star break, that Fuson claims Rangers owner Tom Hicks came to him and said it was time to make a change.
“He said, ‘I’ve talked to John. At the end of the year, he’s going to step aside. You’re stepping in.’ We agreed on a contract. We agreed on a lot of things. We weren’t going to announce it till after the All-Star break. But during the All-Star break, whether it was John, whether it was Buck Showalter, whether it was some other people, they got Tom to change his mind. And the way they did it really bothered me from a moral and ethical standpoint. And so I said, ‘Well, if John’s going to continue to go forward, then I want to step out.’ So I resigned.”
Fuson says A’s GM Billy Beane was one of the first people to call and offered the opportunity to talk about returning to the A’s. But Fuson ultimately accepted an offer from Padres general manager Kevin Towers to return to his hometown of San Diego. Before long, Fuson’s former boss Sandy Alderson joined the Padres front office, followed shortly thereafter by former A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta – forming something of an A’s brain trust reunion in San Diego.
But after a few years with the Padres, Jeff Moorad took control of the team and hired new general manager Jed Hoyer. The new GM wanted to bring in his own people and decided to let Fuson go. But after being asked to take his leave, it didn’t take long for another job offer to come. He got a call from Billy Beane that night. And before long, he was back on board as a special assistant to the general manager of the Oakland A’s.
“It’s been great. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m in big league camp. I’m watching all the games, helping evaluate, giving them my opinions on everything. Once the big league club gets set, then my focus is in the minor league camp. Once we break camp, then it’s all amateur draft – all of April, May and part of June – I’m cross-checking. And then in the summer, I hit all of our clubs once or twice, and Oakland. I’ll go in there and sit there for four or five days and get my eyes on the big league club and see what’s going on there. And at the deadline, if he’s got some trades and wants me out seeing some guys prior to some trades before the deadline, then I’ll do that.”
But what about all that Moneyball drama? All those debates over scouts vs. stats? The dinosaurs vs. the young turks? All those heated confrontations? Fuson claims there were no great philosophical debates, only differences of opinions over players. He says he certainly wasn’t anti-statistics and that those fault lines were over-dramatized by the book and the film.
“When I was a national cross-checker, I raised my hand numerous times and said, ‘Have you looked at these numbers?’ I had always used numbers. Granted, as the years go on, we’ve got so many more ways of getting numbers. It’s called ‘metrics’ now. And metrics lead to saber-math. Now we have formulas. We have it all now. But historically, I always used numbers. If there’s anything that people perceived right or wrong, it’s that me and Billy are very passionate about what we do. And so when we do speak, the conversation is filled with passion. He even told me when he brought me back, ‘Despite what some people think, I always thought we had healthy, energetic baseball conversations.’”
Fuson admits that he was initially caught off guard by some of the characterizations in the book.
“After the book came out, I’d already left, and I was a little stunned by some of the things said in there. And I had my time where me and Billy aired it out a little bit. And he was a very gracious listener when I aired it out. Guys were sticking microphones in my face left and right and I was kind of taking the fifth. But I told Billy, ‘It’s time for me to fire a shot across the bough, man.’ The good thing is most people know none of that really ever happened.”
As for the reported draft room tensions, Fuson says that’s par for the course.
“Was there tension at times in the draft room? Of course, that’s what a draft room is. The draft is so important to so many of us that there is tension. But in baseball, there’s always tension, anxiety and questions asked. Your boss asks you a question and you give your opinion and he disagrees, and how do you get to this common ground? Me, I’ve always respected who my boss is. If you tell me I can’t take that player, that player isn’t going to get taken.”
But surely it can’t feel great to find yourself portrayed as a bad guy on the big screen.
“The great thing about me and Billy is, back then, we used to have a lot of baseball discussions. In some of them we disagreed, and some of them we agreed. But the bottom line is they were always good baseball discussions. How that got twisted into me being a bad guy I think just got overblown in one scenario with the Jeremy Bonderman pick. There was some anxiety over the ownership, with them being caught off guard that we took a high school pitcher – that we hadn’t taken one in ten years. And that thing got kind of ugly. Billy certainly put up a big fight the night before the draft as to why we shouldn’t take him. But I was never told not to take the guy, and that’s who we as a group at the time wanted to take. And that got a little overblown, so all of a sudden I became the resistor – I was never a resistor.”
Fuson concludes by saying, “I’m glad I’m back – especially with where the state of the club is!” Fuson’s passion for player development is obvious as he offers his take on the A’s current crop of promising young prospects. And when it comes to the A’s newest acquisition, Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes, Fuson is clearly impressed.
“He’s physical. He’s explosive. There’s no doubt this guy can crush a fastball. So now we’ve got to watch, when guys start changing speeds on him, is he going to be able to hold up? But so far, this is a good sign. I joked with Billy and said, ‘You might have underpaid!’”
Fans of Double-A Midland will be glad to know that they can look forward to seeing the A’s last two first-round draft picks, power-hitting outfielder Michael Choice and hard-throwing right-hander Sonny Gray, donning Rockhounds uniforms this year. Besides Cespedes, Fuson thinks Choice may be the best pure power hitter in the organization.
“He’s just a very explosive hitter, probably one of the most explosive hitters in the minor leagues right now. This guy has learned a few things and he’s made adjustments. We shoved him right into the California League. We had some expectations and he achieved them. He cut his strikeouts down and shortened up his stride. He’s probably one of the biggest potential power hitters we’ve signed here in a long time. And he’s not just power-oriented. This guy has speed, defensive ability, arm strength – he’s got the package. And it’s just all about us grooming this guy and developing that package.”
As for Gray, he thinks the gritty right-hander’s repertoire needs a few refinements but, other than that, he seems to think he’s got what it takes.
“We’re looking at him really developing this changeup that we’ve shoved down his throat since we signed him. And he wants it as bad as we want to give it to him – because everything he throws is hard and snaps. And he’s gotten away in college without really developing this off-speed something to slow hitters down with. We made him throw it almost every other pitch in the instructional league. And he’s digging it – he wants to throw it. He’s a bright kid. And when it comes to all the other attributes, he’s just a tremendous kid – he’s a competitor. His athleticism, his competitiveness, his will to win, those things go a long way.”
Another particularly intriguing prospect is former 2007 first-round draft pick Sean Doolittle, originally drafted as a first baseman but now, due to injuries, trying to make it as a pitcher. He’s likely to start the year working on his repertoire at Single-A. But, so far, he’s been throwing well and, if he continues to do so, he could move his way up through the ranks quickly.
“His transition has been so fast. He just picked up a ball at the end of the summer. And then basically his first official training back on the mound since college was in instructional league. And now he’s got a couple scoreless innings in big league camp. But the transition’s been great. It’s been easy. He’s taken to it real quick. He’s got a couple of very instinctual knacks in his pitching. The breaking ball needs to be developed, but he’s going to be a nice addition.”
And when it comes to assessing the current state of the A’s organization, Fuson’s love of player development shows through: “We are, to some degree, in a rebuild mode. Look, I always want to put a ring on my finger, but I like building – I like getting better!”
We asked Grady Fuson to tip us off to three guys in the A’s system that we ought to keep an eye on, and here’s what we got:
-GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH-
Right-handed Starting Pitcher
Age: 22 / Drafted: 8th Round – 2010
Expected To Start 2012 With: Stockton Ports
There’s a lot of upside to him. He’s got power in his arm. He’s got a hard breaking ball. The changeup is a developing pitch for him. He’s got good angles. He’s got good planes. It’s just about him learning the touch and feel part of being a starter. He was fairly dominant at Single-A Burlington last year. He was drafted in the 8th round in 2010. If you get a chance to see him, you’re going to like what you see.
Right-handed Hitting Shortstop
Age: 21 / Drafted: 2nd Round – 2010
Expected To Start 2012 With: Stockton Ports
He’s a big key to our system. He was an older high school guy when we took him last year in the draft. He was held back when he was younger so that he could have an extra year of learning English. He was born and raised in the Dominican and his family had moved to the States. He’s physical, he’s big, he’s strong, he runs and he throws. It’s all about learning the nuances. He didn’t have the kind of year we expected, or even he expected, last year in Burlington. But he’s going to be given an opportunity to go to the California League at the age of 21 and see what this young man can do. But there’s impact to his whole game.
Left-handed Hitting Outfielder
Age: 27 / Drafted: 5th Round – 2006
Expected To Start 2012 With: Sacramento Rivercats
I think the next step for him determines a lot of what we do in the future here in Oakland. Jermaine was a kid they’d signed years ago who was gifted and had raw tools. It’s taken a long time for these tools to apply themselves to performance. When I first came back here in 2010, Jermaine was almost on the verge of release. But you just can’t release players like this. They’re just too talented. You can’t replace them, so you might as well keep playing them. And things have really turned for this kid. He started to put it together in 2010, and everyone saw what he did last year. He’s a dynamic, gifted athlete who has a chance to do everything in the game. Those type of players are so difficult to acquire – a dynamic speed guy in center, somebody you can trust is going to do something offensively. There’s no doubt that he’s going to make some decisions possible if, in fact, he continues to back up what he’s done at the Triple-A level. He’s that dynamic of an athlete.
Following on the heels of our two-part interview with A’s GM Billy Beane earlier this week, and in honor of Moneyball’s recognition at the Oscars on Sunday night, I thought it’d be interesting to re-run this old interview that I did with Billy Beane and punk rock legend Johnny Ramone back during the Moneyball season of 2002. The interview was actually conducted during the early stages of the A’s record-setting winning streak and first appeared in the late, great, Bay Area magazine ChinMusic! Johnny Ramone died just two years later from prostate cancer, and Billy Beane is now the longest-tenured general manager in the American League.
It’s interesting to see what was being said about steroids, budgets, the importance of on-base percentage, and the necessity of the A’s having to re-invent themselves ten years ago. The genesis of the interview is also kind of interesting. I always knew that Johnny Ramone was a big baseball fan. He’d told me in an interview many years earlier that he spent much of his free time on the road writing letters to baseball players requesting signed 8×10 photos of them for his collection. At first, I thought he was joking, but it turned out he was dead serious. And he eventually ended up with one of the largest collections in the country!
I’d also heard that Billy Beane, growing up as a teenager in San Diego in the ’70s, was a big punk rock fan. So with that in mind, I approached Billy at a spring training game in Arizona in 2002 and suggested the idea of doing a joint interview with both him and Johnny. His reply was: “Just say when!” With their mutual love of baseball and punk rock, it was natural that the two of them would immediately hit it off. And Johnny would later even end up helping out Billy’s daughter, Casey, with her school paper on the origins of punk rock.
After the interview, I had a baseball conversation with Johnny almost every week until he died. In the last conversation, just shortly before be passed, he was very concerned with Jason Giambi‘s struggles early in his multi-year contract with Johnny’s beloved Yankees. He asked me how many years were left on Giambi’s guaranteed contract, and when I told him, Johnny was distraught: “Oh my God, what are the Yankees gonna do?!” He knew the end was near–not for the Yankees, but for himself–yet all he could think about was the Yankees being saddled with a struggling Giambi’s contract. It was later that year that the Red Sox mounted their startling comeback against the Yankees, taking four straight to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs. And I couldn’t help but think that it was a good thing Johnny had already died by that time, because that surely would have killed him!
Excerpts from the interview appeared online at the time, but this is the first time the complete interview has ever appeared online. When you see that photo of Joe Strummer in Billy Beane’s office in the Moneyball film, don’t be surprised. As you can see in the interview, his enthusiasm for the Clash is almost as great as his enthusiasm for the Ramones!
(JR = Johnny Ramone / BB = Billy Beane / CM = yours truly on behalf of ChinMusic!)
BEANE ON THE BRAT
(from ChinMusic! #5)
Some people might think the worlds of baseball and punk rock don’t have an awful lot in common. But just try telling that to punk rock legend and baseball freak Johnny Ramone and Oakland A’s general manager and punk rock freak Billy Beane! You’ll have a mighty hard time finding a punk rock icon more devoted to our national pastime, and an even harder time finding a baseball executive who was buying Ramones and Sex Pistols 8-tracks and rushing out to catch the Clash way back in ’78. And who else but we here at ChinMusic! would have the sense to bring this dynamic duo together for an enlightening little chit-chat on our two favorite subjects…good music, and good old-fashioned hardball. The two talked a month before the end of the 2002 season, with Rhino Records having just issued a fresh batch of remastered Ramones releases, with the A’s in the midst of their record-breaking 20-game winning streak, and with the threat of a possible baseball strike looming just a day away. Thankfully, the games went on…and so did the first meeting of the Billy & Johnny mutual admiration society…
CM: Johnny, meet Billy…Billy, meet Johnny…
BB: Johnny, they might have given you a heads up that I might turn into a crazy fan here and just gush for a few minutes. But I went out and got the “Rocket To Russia” 8-track when I was 16. And I got into the Ramones, the Dead Boys and everybody else for the same reason that you started playing it. I got so sick of hearing “Kashmir,” and “Roundabout” by Yes, and all these synthesizers on the radio. So when I first heard you I went, “Oh my God!” It was like I was enlightened! So I said, “Johnny’s just gonna have to put up with me for a few minutes because I’m gonna turn into like some crazy Trekkie guy here.”
JR: Hey, and I wanted to be a baseball player…I just fell into this!
CM: That’s why we knew it was a great idea to bring you guys together!
BB: You know how I found out that you were a baseball fan, Johnny? I had read somewhere that you knew John Wetteland.
JR: I met Wetteland when Peter Gammons came over one day. He wanted to do a piece on baseball and rock & roll. He brought me over to Dodger Stadium and I got to meet Wetteland. And I was always a big fan.
BB: Yeah, I actually played with John in Detroit briefly when he got drafted over there in spring training. And at that point we were exchanging Roxy Music CDs.
JR: Boy, at this point he’s into Christian rock. So I guess he must have gone through some problems in his life!
BB: Yeah, he had a tough upbringing. But he’s a real nice and very enlightened guy. And that’s how we started talking because I read somewhere that you two had hooked up. By the way, you know what I just did, Johnny? I went and saw Siouxsie & the Banshees.
JR: Oh God!
BB: Well, I had to go see them just because everyone’s going on these old tours again. So I went…and they were terrible! I was so disappointed. Siouxsie’s not in her salad days anymore!
JR: Have you seen Marilyn Manson?
BB: No, I haven’t. I was reading up on them. I guess the biggest thing for me is I first really gotta love the music.
JR: I didn’t even know their music at all. But I ended up going to see them three times last year because I’m friendly with them, and their show is terrific. And last year, I went to see Green Day too and they were terrific.
BB: Yeah, I really like Green Day.
JR: I went to see them at the Forum a few months ago and I couldn’t believe how entertaining they were.
CM: They have a good drummer, and I think a good punk band needs a really good drummer.
BB: Well, we were just talking about Clem Burke, the great drummer from Blondie…
JR: He was actually in our band for about a week!
BB: Yeah, and I still think Debbie Harry was really cute back then!
JR: Debbie was beautiful back in the ’70s and early ’80s…she was beautiful!
BB: When we were in the playoffs two years ago in New York, Johnny, I made the cab driver take me to CBGB’s in my suit and tie and take a picture out in front of the awning there.
JR: I went and did that when we went into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, this past March when we got inducted. I probably took my first picture there since about 1974. I went inside for the first time in about 20 years too. And Hilly, who runs the place, was actually nice to me. He was never nice to me before. He gave me a t-shirt…he wouldn’t even give me a free soda before!
BB: Well I’ve read all the biographies. You were actually a construction worker at first, right?
JR: Yeah, I was a construction worker. I was a steam-fitter for five years. I bought a guitar when I was 26 years old.
BB: That’s amazing!
CM: Did you read “Please Kill Me,” the Legs McNeil book?
JR: I don’t read any of them because…well, I just don’t read them.
CM: Well, you were there!
JR: I read baseball books all the time. Baseball’s my life…and watching old movies.
BB: I actually just gave “Please Kill Me” to Scott Hatteberg, our first baseman.
JR: Billy, we have a Ramones tribute record coming out in November. And we’ve got Rob Zombie, the Chili Peppers, Metallica, U2, Green Day, Rancid, the Pretenders, KISS, Tom Waits, a really good lineup.
BB: Now is Tom Waits gonna sing a Ramones song?
JR: Yeah, Tom Waits did a Ramones song. Eddie Vedder did two Ramones songs on it. U2 did “Beat On The Brat.” Metallica did “53rd & 3rd.”
BB: Well I read Dee Dee’s autobiography, so I remember what that song was about!
JR: Nobody sang about this kind of stuff. I mean, here’s Dee Dee writing about some Vietnam veteran coming back and becoming a male prostitute…and a Green Beret on top of it!
BB: Do you know Lars Frederiksen, the guitar player for Rancid?
JR: Yeah. Wow, you really know your punk rock!
BB: Yeah, he’s a huge A’s fan. He lives in San Francisco. In fact, his mother’s a season-ticket holder and we talk on occasion. He’ll call me when we make a trade. You know, “Why’d you trade Ben Grieve, what’s going on here?”
JR: Oh yeah? Lars calls me up like once a year and we usually talk about old movies or horror films. I’ll have to run some baseball by him next time.
BB: Given where you’re from, are you originally a Mets fan, Johnny?
JR: I’m a Yankee fan! I’ve been a Yankee fan since I first saw Mickey Mantle play probably in like 1955.
BB: Oh, well you and probably a few million other people! That’s how Jason Giambi’s dad became a fan too. That’s why Jason’s in New York now.
CM: Well I’d say that had a fateful impact, didn’t it?
BB: It did…there’s no question it did!
JR: By the way, you’re doing a tremendous job with this team, Billy.
BB: I appreciate it, thank you.
JR: What’s your payroll?
BB: We’re at about $40 million.
JR: $40 million…unbelievable! I see teams always getting these over-priced veterans who don’t produce when you can bring up young guys that’ll probably give you the same type of production. And you guys seem to be doing that.
BB: When Sandy Alderson, who’s now in the commissioner’s office, was here, Sandy sort of saw the dichotomy in payroll starting to exist. And we just started the process a lot earlier than a lot of other clubs. But the biggest challenge for us isn’t so much one year. The challenge is to keep reinventing yourself, after losing guys like Giambi, Damon, Isringhausen, and still stay at that payroll and still be good.
BB: Three years ago, before we were actually good, I said, “Someday, someone’s gonna look at this group of young players that’s on the A’s club and say, ‘I can’t believe they were all on one team.’” That’s how good I think these guys are. Chavez is just 24 years old. Tejada’s 26. Zito, Mulder, Hudson…these guys are so young it’s just remarkable!
JR: Well, you see teams all the time that will sign guys who are average players, they might even be below average, but they’ve been veterans and they’re signing them for too much money. I remember last year, with the Yankees having to deal with the Tino Martinez issue, and Tino leaving. Yankee fans were complaining. And I’m going, “Tino’s a below average first baseman at this point!”
CM: I know a lot of people were harping on you Billy that the A’s ought to be signing Tino Martinez to solve your first base problem, and that probably would have cost you about $10 million more than you ended up spending.
BB: You’re exactly right!
JR: And the Yankees were smart, they got Giambi. I think he’s fourth in the American League in runs scored. He gets on base so much that he’s scoring all these runs, and he’s slow as can be.
BB: That’s sort of our big thing, on-base percentage. And when it comes to that, Jason was really the poster-child for the A’s.
JR: Exactly. And the Yankees were smart…they spent their money wisely!
BB: Yeah, they did. And Jason’s such a remarkable player for all those reasons. In my opinion, he’s the best offensive player in the American League, and he has been for the past number of years.
JR: When he hit that grand slam in that extra inning game, when they were three runs down, he just won over everyone. I’m making my wife sit there and watch this, and I’m going, “You’ll see, if the guy before him can just get on base, I think he’s gonna do it this time.”
BB: Well, that was actually when Jason really started turning it around too.
JR: Yeah, that’s when he won over all the Yankee fans. I kept saying, “How could they be booing this guy? Just leave him alone. He’s gonna have his numbers at the end of the season.”
CM: Well, that’s the New York way!
JR: I mean, forget Tino, you know?
BB: Well, the good thing up in Oakland sometimes is that there are certain players you just can’t sign. So it sort of gives you the ability not to make decisions that maybe the public may want you to make.
CM: You don’t have worry about whether or not to spend that $10 million…because you just can’t!
BB: Yeah, exactly! And the one thing now, as well as we’ve been playing, can you imagine if we had Giambi back? You know, it’s sort of scary! That’s why I keep going back to just how talented this group of players we have right now is. And then the way the pitching staff just keeps getting better and better…
JR: Hey, how come Ben Grieve didn’t develop like it seemed he was going to when he first came up?
BB: He had a solid rookie year, he went on to hit 28 home runs his next year, then he just seemed to plateau and it’s just hard to explain. But with young players, the first hump you have is that you get up here and you’re just happy to be here. I guess it’s probably like an album. You come out with a hit album, and that first hit album wasn’t so hard. It’s the second one. You know, the ability to recreate that.
JR: Everyone puts out their best stuff on the first one.
BB: Yeah, exactly. And the ability to stay up and discover what’s going to work, based on making those adjustments, is really what makes the great ones. You look at a guy like Chavez, it scares me to think about what Eric’s gonna do. This is a kid who’s hit 30 home runs, driven in 100 runs, I think two years now, and won a Gold Glove…and he’s seven years younger than Jason!
JR: I hope Soriano’s able to make the adjustments. He swings at a lot of stuff and he’s gonna have to get a little more plate-discipline.
BB: Oh yeah, Soriano will be fine. The kid who’s gonna be good over there too is Nick Johnson. If you look at it, the best hitters always start out with that great plate-discipline.
JR: Yeah, he’s got great plate-discipline.
BB: The Yankee teams of the ’90s always sort of exemplified that. I’m pretty good friends with the Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman. And when they signed Jason, I know one of the things they really wanted to focus back on was on-base percentage, which they’d lost a little bit.
CM: Well isn’t that also a key part of your philosophy with the A’s too Billy, getting your hitters to take as many pitches as possible and trying to get opposing pitchers to throw as many pitches as you can?
BB: Yes, because ultimately, if you go into a game and you’ve got to face Clemens for seven or eight innings, and then Mariano Rivera for one, you’re not gonna get many runs. What you try to shoot for is trying to get the middle relievers in there, get as many at-bats as you can against them, because if you have to make your living off Clemens and Rivera, you’re not gonna win too many games.
JR: I saw once where they said that Nolan Ryan in one of his peak years with the Angels was averaging like 160 pitches per game, okay? That’s hardly believable! I once watched a game with Sam McDowell pitching. He had gone 11 innings and had struck out 12 or 13 guys, walked 10, and he was up to like 230 pitches!
CM: Guys hardly throw that many pitches in three starts now!
BB: Oh my gosh, I can’t even imagine…
JR: And Ryan, back then, would never lose a game once he had a lead after like the seventh inning. He got stronger and more dominant as the game would go along.
CM: You know, that’s an interesting point that Johnny brings up. I’d be curious to hear you address how things have changed. I remember when I was a kid following baseball back in the ’70s, you had four-man rotations as opposed to five-man rotations and you had guys throwing nine innings quite a bit…
JR: Ferguson Jenkins throwing 30 complete games a year…
BB: Mickey Lolich throwing I think close to 400 innings one year…
CM: But what do you think about this sort of change in pitching philosophy over the years?
BB: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s funny because we’re kind of taking a look at that ourselves. I believe that the five-man rotation came into play when Earl Weaver actually had five great starters.
JR: The Yankees always had a five-man rotation with Casey Stengel. But Whitey Ford had never won 20 games. And in the ’61 season when Ralph Houk became manager, he went to the four-man rotation and Whitey Ford won 24 games that year. But Stengel was always doing it.
BB: Well, I think no one really knows the reason why it came into play. But I think the reason it stays in play is because pitchers’ health is at such a premium, and teams are so protective of those great young starters. And a lot of these guys now, this generation of pitchers, have been raised on the five-man rotation.
CM: It seems like something that just kind of crept in without really any conscious thought. And now that it’s in, everybody’s kind of used to it, so nobody wants to vary from it.
JR: I remember a time before when the Dodgers had the four-man rotation in the ’60s, with Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen and Johnny Podres. They had a four-man rotation. And then Billy Martin would go to the four-man rotation…
CM: Yeah, Billy Martin used to like to throw the starters out there as long as possible.
BB: Yeah, unfortunately that group of pitchers he had here, I think it was ’81 in Oakland, a lot of them after that had arm injuries.
JR: But I think that could have just happened. I don’t know if Billy’s to blame.
CM: He did that elsewhere and it didn’t necessarily happen.
JR: Yeah, he did it with Lolich and he had a big year the following year. For throwing 370 innings, he still had a good year the following year.
BB: Yeah, you know what’s interesting too is the Japanese have much different theories on it.
JR: Right, pitch more!
BB: Yeah. And I’ll tell you what, it’s something that in our organization we just want to take a look at it and sort of examine the history, as we’re sort of doing here orally.
JR: I guess all those breaking pitches take a toll, right?
BB: Yeah. And for us, our bread and butter is those big three young guys…Zito, Hudson and Mulder. And we just want to make sure we don’t do anything that could lead to an injury. So we actually keep track of every pitch they throw, even in between starts.
JR: Oh, I saw Zito throw a curveball to a lefty last night…it started out behind him and went back over for a strike!
CM: One of those knee-buckling curves!
BB: Barry’s pretty special. He’s also a fledgling rock star, as you may or may not know.
JR: Everybody wants to get into the act!
BB: In fact, remember game three of the playoffs that he started last year, the 1-0 game?
CM: The one with the Jeter play.
BB: Exactly! Who could forget?! Well before the game, I was in the workout room running on the treadmill. And then Barry walks in and puts in a CD, plays it as loud as he can, and gets on the warm-up bike, and doesn’t say a word to me the whole time. And he has this whole routine when he’s pitching, different songs and stuff. People call him quirky, but he’s incredibly disciplined with his routine.
CM: He’s just really locked in, that’s really what it is! But I know when I talked to Barry, he did say that you had turned him on to the Strokes, Billy.
JR: So I guess Billy’s the coolest guy in the organization!
CM: Exactly, it’s up to you to pass this stuff on to the next generation of players, Billy!
BB: Well, I was passing out Ramones CDs to Spiezio. And now with Scott Hatteberg, who’s a huge music fan, I actually gave him the DVD of “The Filth & The Fury,” and I had to explain it to him. I gave him a whole history of how Malcom McLaren had come over to New York and had sort of managed the Dolls…
CM: Yeah, he was the last of the Dolls’ bad managers.
BB: Kind of ruined them too, didn’t he?
CM: Well, I know Sylvain and Arthur Kane, so I’ve heard plenty of Malcolm stories.
JR: Have you heard the one about when I hit him in the dressing room up at the Whiskey?
CM: No, I don’t think I’ve heard that one…let’s hear it, Johnny!
JR: Well he was in the dressing room, and I’m already offended that this guy was in my dressing room, and he says to some girl I was seeing at the time, “Hey, what’s his problem?” And I go, “What’s my problem?” And I punched him. Then I pick up Dee Dee’s bass and I go to hit him over the head with it, and they drag him out.
CM: Just in the nick of time!
JR: I don’t need this guy asking, “What’s my problem?”
CM: Well, you know, after the Dolls broke up, Malcolm took Sylvain’s guitar back to England with him. And in some of the early Sex Pistols stuff, you see Steve Jones playing this white guitar…
JR: The white Falcon…
CM: Yeah, Syl’s white Falcon, exactly!
JR: He had the Dolls dressing up in the red patent leather with the communist hammer & sickle backdrop behind them. And I’m going, “What is this?” You know?
BB: Well, when I gave Hatteberg “The Filth & the Fury,” I explained to him the differences between the New York scene and the English scene. He actually went home and watched it and he was just blown away. He couldn’t believe how great it was!
JR: Oh, he was liking it then?
BB: Oh, he loved it! A couple of years ago when the Pistols did their reunion tour, I figured I had to go, right? So I went out, and there was a whole group of young guys. And then there were guys like me wearing, you know, middle-aged man clothes, who had actually bought the first 8-track! Anyway, on the last song, a young guy behind me decides the best thing to do was to push the guy in front of him. So I’m sitting there with my brother and his friend and coming this close to getting into a fistfight at a concert. I was the assistant GM at the time, so my brother grabs me and goes, “You’re the assistant GM with the A’s, you don’t need to be getting into fights at punk rock concerts!”
JR: That would have been terrific, yeah!
BB: The purists would say, “Oh, you can’t go see the Pistols now, it’s not the same thing.” But I’ll tell you what, it was great!
JR: The best band I’ve seen since I got started in like ’74 were the Clash at a certain point…like around ’77-’78.
BB: I saw them when they came over to the States on their first tour.
JR: Yeah, with the “Give ‘Em Enough Rope,” the second album tour. They were just tremendous on that tour.
BB: When I saw them, Johnny, they had just come over, and they had not yet come out with “London Calling.” “London Calling” was due out in about six months.
JR: So it was still after “Give ‘Em Enough Rope.”
BB: Yeah, exactly.
JR: They were probably at a peak there, because I saw them a year or so later, and they weren’t as good as they were the previous year. So they peaked. I guess this must have been in ’78, right?
BB: Yeah, it was probably the Fall of ’78.
JR: The first concert I went to see was the Rolling Stones in 1964. It was at Carnegie Hall in New York. I remember the date, June 20th, 1964.
BB: My first one was KISS.
JR: I see Paul Stanley around here. I’ve got him on the Ramones tribute record and he’s a really nice guy.
BB: You guys played out here, Johnny, I think it ended up being your last tour. It was an outdoor amphitheater up in Concord, and I want to say it was ’93.
JR: Well, the last tour would be ’96 when I did Lollapalooza. That was the last thing that I did. I retired then, and the only time I’ve ever played again was one song with Pearl Jam. They did a Ramones song and they wanted me to play one song with them.
BB: Well, Dee Dee was actually up here about a year ago.
JR: Yeah, Dee Dee died, you know?
BB: Yeah, I remember the day it happened in fact.
JR: You know, from watching athletes play beyond their prime, I wanted to retire and stay retired. I did not want to get up there and perform, and be past my prime. I was already, but I had to continue on to reach a certain amount where I could comfortably retire. So I had planned out my retirement probably five years before I retired. And I’m definitely sticking to it. I don’t even touch the guitar.
BB: Well in terms of your guitar-playing, as you got older, did you find yourself more interested in doing more with the guitar, or did you just love the style that you…
JR: No! I never even touched the guitar. When I’d walk on the stage, that’s when I touched the guitar!
BB: Just had a callous on that index finger, right?
JR: Yeah, we’d keep touring and playing all the time. I just loved playing for the fans, otherwise to me it was like I hated being on the road. I loved getting on the stage and playing the hour-and-fifteen-minute show for the fans.
CM: Everything else was just work, huh?
JR: Yeah, everything else was just work! But I loved meeting the fans, talking to the fans. I signed autographs for every fan. It was such a good feeling knowing that if I talked to them for one minute, they seemed to be so excited and it would make their day. And I thought, “Wow, this is just great that I’m able to make their day just by being nice to them!”
BB: By the way, I actually liked “End Of The Century” that came out in ’79-’80, the one that Spector did with you guys. In fact, that was the first year I signed. I was in the instructional league and wearing that out. That’s when “Rock & Roll High School” came out too, the movie. And I remember all those problems that supposedly you guys had with Phil Spector doing that album. And you know, it was supposed to have been a nightmare recording it.
BB: But I actually like the album. I think the sound is great!
JR: Rhino just put out the next four albums starting with “End of the Century,” “Pleasant Dreams,” “Subterranean Jungle,” and “Too Tough To Die.” They came up with bonus tracks and demos and everything else. I’ll send you a bunch of stuff.
BB: I was just saying…I never get tired of it! I go into a ballpark now, and some of the riffs that you guys had I hear in ballparks, and commercials…
JR: Oh yeah, it’s so funny. Actually, I sit there, and when it comes on, if I’m at the ballpark, I feel embarrassed and I’ll look down. I try to hide.
BB: Well, you know, I was in Berkeley about 11 years ago and I was gonna buy a guitar. So there was a young guy who was working at the guitar store. And he goes, “Well what do you like?” And I said to him, “Well, do you like the Ramones?” And he looked at me straight as can be and goes, “Doesn’t everyone?”
JR: I wish!
BB: …as if that was a ridiculous question to even ask! But I remember, even in the ’80s in Milwaukee, they used to play the intro to “Blitzkrieg Bop!”
JR: Yeah, a lot of the ballparks put it on.
BB: Well Milwaukee was one of the first to do it in the ’80s. And with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” they never played the words, they just played the intro.
JR: Yeah. “Hey, ho, let’s go!” They play it at Yankee Stadium all the time.
BB: Well it must be flattering, especially when you think about the first time you guys put that riff together, and you’re thinking “Hey, this works!” And then…
JR: Well, we had written that song because we had heard the Bay City Rollers doing “Saturday Night.” And we thought that was our competition, the Bay City Rollers. So we had to come up with a song that had a chant ’cause they had one too.
CM: That was gonna be your big pop hit!
BB: Well, I think you outlasted them!
JR: So what are they going to do about steroid use, Billy? How do we go 37 years with Roger Maris’s record there, and then have it broken six times or something in this recent period? They’ve made a joke of these records that stood…it’s not adding up.
BB: Well, obviously when things happen people are always going to start to wonder. But it sounds like they’re working on something that I think, if anything, would lend itself to at least putting away some of the questions about some of the things that are going on.
JR: Well if I was hitting 50 homers and I was not on steroids, I would come forward and say, “I volunteer to be tested.”
BB: Yeah, if I was hitting 50 homers…well if I was hitting 50 homers, I wouldn’t be the GM of the A’s right now! But you know, all through the ’80s, weightlifting was totally taboo in baseball. And guys now lift weights in baseball like they do in football, so there’s no question that the players are stronger because they are working harder. When I first got in the game, the only thing guys did was they hit and they threw. The conditioning they did was very minimal compared to now.
JR: Yeah, that part is all true. But no one’s hitting home runs any farther than Mickey Mantle.
BB: Well there are certain guys, Mantle being one of them, that transcend time anyway. And I always believe that even in the game now, there’s a group of players that is so much better. They’re at such a level beyond everybody else that it’s like Jordan in basketball. Bonds is one of those guys, and so was Mantle, and guys like McGwire. Put him in any era, 20 years from now, and he’s just gonna be exactly what he was, a tremendous player!
JR: Right, the great players would be great in any era.
JR: Well, it looks like it’s gonna be the A’s and the Yankees again this year!
BB: Well, we’ll cross our fingers. I hope we get a chance at them. We’ve got a tough division.
CM: Do you watch all the Yankee games on cable, Johnny?
JR: Oh yeah. You know, occasionally I’m cheated out of a couple though. They don’t have them all on.
CM: Do you get out to many games since you’ve moved to southern California?
JR: No, not that many because my wife doesn’t want to go. And I’m sort of at home with my wife now. But retirement’s great though…I love it! This is what I’ve looked forward to all my life. It was a little weird the first year, sitting around and missing playing. But I knew that’s how it was gonna be. That’s why boxers don’t get out; that’s why ballplayers don’t get out. But I tried to prepare myself for that mentally. Look, I did it for 22 years…time to move on with my life. You know, I’ve been married for 20 years and I’m just happy being home with my wife.
CM: Well, it’s time to start spending more time focusing on baseball now, Johnny!
JR: Yeah, trust me, I do plenty of that!
BB: You’re a collector too, right Johnny?
JR: Yeah, I’m a collector. I don’t have it anymore, but I had probably the largest autographed 8×10 collection in the country. I had about 5,500 different players’ autographed 8x10s…pretty much from 1950 on, probably 75% of the players. But I’m also a movie poster collector. So I decided to liquidate that collection a few months ago and put the money towards movie posters. I just wanted to make it easier on my wife in case anything ever happened to me. So I just took the money and put it into some 1930s horror movie posters that I collect. My friend Kirk Hammett from Metallica, he’s a huge collector too. He lives in San Francisco…but unfortunately, he’s not a baseball fan!
BB: Well if there’s any baseball stuff I could get you…
JR: Well I do collect team-autographed balls!
BB: Well I’ll get you one of those!
JR: I have mostly ’50s stuff…’55 Senators, ’55 White Sox, ’55 Cardinals. But guys now don’t write as neat as they used to…every signature was so perfect! But I’d love to be able to add something…
BB: Well why don’t we be optimistic and say that you’ll be getting the 2002 World Champion team ball?!
JR: Well if I had an Oakland A’s team ball, I might have to start rooting for them!
BB: That’s what I’m banking on! Well like I said, I tried to stop from gushing, but I’m like a Star Trek fan when it comes to the Ramones. Thanks for taking the time out, Johnny. I really appreciate it. I’m a huge fan, as big as they come!
JR: Yeah, it was great talking to you too!
You can also check out my original review of Moneyball from back in 2003 here… ChinMusic! – Moneyball Book Review